I’m a guy in my mid twenties and a few months ago, I resigned from my work as director of a local ministry because I just can’t get over my struggle with pornography. I’ve been “clean” for weeks and sometimes months, but it seems that inevitably I fall again. I really want to break this cycle of sin and live a life of sexual purity, both inwardly and outwardly. To do that I am seeking the Lord in His Word and through prayer (though not as consistently as I should). I have people that keep me accountable. I meet weekly with a few older men for a study on sexual purity. At the same time, I want to serve the Lord in anyway he wants me to serve. But there is some confusion…I have been presented with many opportunities to serve God (leading worship, camp counselor, teaching Bible study, and doing part-time youth ministry at a local church), but I don’t know if I should serve in these ways since I haven’t been able to break free of this sin. So my questions: Which sins disqualify me from Christian service and/or leadership? And for which roles would those sins disqualify me?
It breaks my heart to read your question (though I am SO glad you wrote!). Not because of your actual question, but because of the mentality that indeed permeates so many churches and ministries that one has to be perfect (especially in the area of sexuality) in order to serve God. We can’t be perfect, so either we allow the enemy to persuade us to disqualify ourselves, or we can find ourselves immersed in an atmosphere of impossible expectations and standards that results in secret sin and resulting hypocrisy.
I prayed about my response and talked to a number of men in leadership at my church (Watermark Community Church in Dallas), where transparency, honesty and accountability are bedrock values.
First, let me affirm you in your decision to step down from ministry for the purpose of focusing on your relationship with Christ. It’s also essential to listen to your accountability group to determine whether and when you are ready to resume a leadership position like the ones you list in your email.
From what you describe, it sounds like you may already have components in place for successfully achieving sexual purity, which is a process and not an event:
1) It’s essential to actively pursue intimacy with Christ through prayer, the Word, and developing the habit of daily surrender and dependence on Him. Meditate on the truth of 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 until it soaks down into your soul and you “own” it:
And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.
(This is the part that differentiates trustful empowerment from “white-knuckling” it.)
The fact that you admit inconsistency in your time in the Word and in prayer is really key. Allow me to strongly encourage you to make these disciplines your highest priority in this time of learning to become an overcomer. Otherwise, it would be the equivalent of trying to train for a marathon without eating or drinking regularly!
2) It’s also essential to build an accountability support system as you live in community with other Christ-followers. Naturally, there are different understandings of what constitutes accountability, but what works very well at Watermark is a network of people with whom we can be honest, on whom we can depend to show us grace at the same time that they speak the truth to us, and who are safe people to whom we can confess our sins immediately before getting caught in a downward spiral of secrecy and dread that allows sin to continue, unrepented, for a period of time. Even people in leadership, when they confess immediately and ask for help, prayer and continued accountability, do not lose their jobs or, for volunteer leaders, their opportunity to serve through leading, if they are proactive in confessing and repenting to their accountability “safety net.” One of my pastors wrote, “There are times when we need to step back from leadership positions to devote all our energies to focusing on Jesus so that we can deal with the sin that sometimes entangles us. That has happened to a number of our staff who are back in leadership positions today.”
Watermark has the largest Celebrate Recovery ministry in the U.S., so some of the recovery vocabulary spills over into the rest of the church culture. We are all familiar with the phrase “struggling well,” which means actively denying our flesh’s tendencies and desires to stumble and sin, and when we do fall into sin, we immediately confess and repent, receive forgiveness and cleansing from the Lord (1 John 1:9), and get back up again. And we get that struggling is just an expected part of living in a fallen world, and we all struggle against various temptations. One of the pastors I talked to in preparation to answer your email stressed that what disqualifies someone from serving in leadership is not “struggling well,” which is good, but engaging in continuing, unrepented sin—which also includes a rebellious, increasingly hard heart. That doesn’t sound like it describes you, but that’s something you and your accountability team would determine.
The CR Men’s director wrote, “His struggle with pornography sounds like it has been ongoing with consistent defeat. I am saddened that he felt the need to resign, instead of “sitting the bench” for a season. This indicates to me that he couldn’t be honest with his employer (my assumption, of course). In the future, I hope and pray that ______ will see his struggle with porn as a platform of authenticity that God can use in his life to relate to and minister to others. As he relates to and ministers to others, he will experience freedom and fellowship like never before (1 John 1, 2 Cor. 1). He just needs the opportunity to begin sharing. I would highly recommend CR or some other Christ-centered recovery program.”
You asked for a list of disqualifying sins and “off-limits” places of service and leadership. I don’t know that such a list exists, although I do think it’s important to keep in mind Paul’s command and statement in 1 Cor 6:18—”Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body.” Sexual sin (defined as “illicit intercourse,” the meaning of porneia, translated “immorality”) is in a different category than other sins. For example, if a man or woman in church leadership has an ongoing sin problem with having sex with anyone they’re not married to, they need to direct their energies into learning chastity and purity, learning to keep their passions under control (1 Thess. 4:3-5), rather than continuing to minister to others in the name of Jesus while practicing the hypocrisy that Jesus condemned.
One of the themes that runs throughout the gospels is the importance of the heart as opposed to outward appearance. What grieved the Lord Jesus was not sinners who came to Him with a broken, contrite spirit (Ps. 51:17), but religious leaders with a hard, rebellious heart. In the Sermon on the Mount, He revealed the way God sees the sinfulness of the heart, even if it doesn’t manifest in outwardly apparent sin. So I would respectfully suggest that what disqualifies someone for a position of responsibility is a hard, rebellious heart.
This may have been more than you expected when you wrote, but I do hope you find it helpful.
Update 2018: Watermark is no longer using the Celebrate Recovery curriculum, though we parted from the CR folks on very good terms. We have written our own program called “re:generation,” which a growing number of other churches have brought to their congregations: www.regenerationrecovery.org/.
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